From Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing to Gossip Girl. Rachel Shukert for Babble.com.Rachel Shukert
There was a time when the shelves of the Young Adult section at the bookstore (or even the library, as the more ancient among you may remember) were filled with stories of smart, urban, and overwhelmingly middle class children doing very normal and often humorous things. There was Peter Hatcher, the original Fourth Grade Nothing, in an apartment building near Central Park with his parents, his hyperactive brother Fudge, a nightmare toddler, a deranged myna bird named Uncle Feather, and his sometime nemesis Sheila Tubman, a.k.a. Queen of the Cooties.
Just a few blocks away lived Caroline Tate, a youthful dinosaur enthusiast, and her brother J.P., a surly math genius with a photographic memory, with their struggling single mother in a walk-up a few blocks away from the Museum of Natural History. In Cambridge, MA, we could visit Anastasia Krupnik, a seventh grader with literary pretensions, her startlingly verbal three-year-old brother Sam, and her cheerfully bohemian mother and father, a book illustrator and a semi-successful poet.
On the other side of the country, in Portland, was Ramona Quimby, with her bossy sister Beezus, her home-made clothes, and her doll named Chevrolet, whose family goes through a difficult time when Mr. Quimby is laid off from his job. And who could forget the eternal saga of the Babysitters Club, in the sleepy Connecticut town of Stonybrook, whose members read like a perfect laundry list of responsible diversity: Claudia (Japanese), Jessie (black), Mary Ann (shy), Stacey (diabetic), Kristy (the tomboy). All were average kids with real-world problems: sibling rivalry, parents who worried about money, divorce, insecurity.
They’re all still there, these old friends, although they don’t occupy the prime bookshelf real estate they did in the past. Superfudge may have been priced out of Manhattan, but he’s still lurking around the bookstore equivalent of Carnasie or Forest Hills as another demographic has moved in. The Young Adult section has more than gentrified – it’s become downright aristocratic.
So much ink, virtual and literal, has already been spilled analyzing the multi-media phenomenon of Gossip Girl that it seems there is hardly anyone with DSL access who is not intimately acquainted with the highbrow shenanigans of the preposterously named Blair Waldorf, Serena van der Woodsen, and the rest as they romp, snort and sleep their way around the Upper East Side, a fairy tale paradise replete with servants, balls and minor European royalty. Countless news outlets (The New York Times, Gawker) have breathlessly chronicled the filming of the TV series, the comings and goings of its stars, the response to the characters from their real-life counterparts at Nightingale-Bamford and Spence. Cultural critics, from Naomi Wolf to the American Library Association, have also eagerly added their two cents, not to mention concerns, about the series: it glamorizes casual sex, drinking and drug use; it all but eliminates minorities from the social fabric of New York City; it’s aspirational without being inspirational.
The publishers themselves rather benignly advertise the series as “Sex and the City for the younger set,” but this comparison misses the point (and let’s not fool ourselves about the age of the younger set – it’s not actual teens who read teen fiction, but middle-schoolers and younger). The Gossip Girl books are not about sex, casual or otherwise. They’re not about dating, nor friendship, nor anything you were forced to discuss solemnly in health class. Gossip Girl is about privilege. Or rather, the power of privilege – the doors it opens, the pathways it smoothes. Its message: if you didn’t have the sense to be born into money – and old money, at that – you’ll spend the rest of your days playing catch-up while the people who did look down on you and laugh.
While there is certainly a bleak truth to this sentiment, the lack of apology with which it is presented in the series, as well as in its legions of copycats and spin-offs – It-Girl, The A-List, The Clique – is startling. Raised as I was, on the principles of inclusiveness and diversity and the inherent fairness of the meritocracy (and yes, I know this betrays me as hopelessly, naively middle-class), it seems downright un-American.
The not-so-faint whiff of superiority has spread even to books intended for children too young (for now) to appreciate the cachet of Gucci Aviatrix bags and Christian Louboutin stilettos. While there are still plenty of cute picture books about loveable penguins on the shelves of the Barnes & Noble Jr. section, there’s also the phenomenon of Fancy Nancy, a series of picture books by Jane O’Connor and Robin Preiss Glasser, now approaching their hundredth week on the New York Times Bestseller List. Glamour-obsessed, status-conscious, and achingly posh young Nancy can’t understand why her boring family can’t share her passion for fashion and all things upper class – she’s frustrated at being misunderstood, stranded in a family of (gasp!) normal people without such lofty aspirations, who seem perfectly content to live average lives devoid of privilege or luxury. There’s something charmingly drag queen-y about Fancy Nancy. And her down-to-earth family’s insistence on values like commitment, devotion and love cut through her princess-y fussiness, redeeming her and the books. The same can not be said be said of Madonna’s (yes, that Madonna’s) The English Roses, where the rich main character is bullied by a group of Mean Girls (the “Roses” of the title) for the sin of being prettier, smarter, nicer, and better dressed.
Rich and “perfect” kids have always existed in the world of children’s literature, but have traditionally served as cruel, snobby foils (think Draco Malfoy, Nellie Olsen, Veruca Salt, and all their pompous cousins) for the tenacious, fair-minded protagonists. Occasionally, one of these spoiled brats will get something of a redemption edit in the course of the narrative – an unhappy home life, a sudden urge to do the right thing – but for the most part, the function of the wealthy in these stories is simple: to drive home the essential decency and integrity of the main character, with whom the audience is meant to identify. But in the New Children’s Literature it’s the hapless middle-classes – the normal kids – who ruin the fun, through either graceless social-climbing or trenchantly decrying the excess and shallowness that make being wealthy so delicious, so desirable, so sympathetic.
There seems to be a conspicuous sense of timeliness to this, when the gap between rich and poor in America is wider than at any time in modern history. After all, isn’t it the tiresome middle class that’s been whining for the past seven years about their college loans and inadequate health care? About the shrinking job market and rising housing costs – not to mention the bursting of the sub-prime mortgage bubble that threatens to leave everybody in America homeless or something? Why must they spoil everybody’s fun? Can’t they simply take a hint and disappear?
Not without a fight, if the latest campaign rhetoric is to believed. So let’s start winning hearts and minds from the ground up, and by that I mean the people who are closest to the ground. Ignore the ridiculous warning that says the episodes “may not suit the needs of today’s preschool child.” Young children may not yet be reading these paeans to wealth, but they’re not immune to the zeitgeist.
Don’t worry – you don’t have to send your kids to boarding school in North Korea to save them from total subservience to the gods of greed. By all means, give them Gossip Girl, but rescue all those Carter-era stories of latchkey kids and public school and Native American girls abandoned on islands off the coast of California as well. For the littler ones, dust off Free To Be You and Me. Pick up the newly issued DVDs of the old Sesame Street – and ignore the ridiculous warning that appears at the beginning of the series saying that the episodes are intended for adults and “may not suit the needs of today’s preschool child.” Just what are they trying to protect kids from? America’s most famous children’s television program is a show essentially about urban, inner-city kids, playing, learning, leading fulfilling lives. A stunning rebuke to failed schools and failed policies, to snobbery and classism. A powerful reminder of a different time – when even a poor kid could be on TV.
Photo Credit: Amanda Keeys